Contemplating the true nature of the notion of “responsibility” in responsible command

21 December 2015 Geoffrey S. Corn

Operating under responsible command is an essential requirement to qualify as a lawful combatant, and is also central to the doctrine of command responsibility. This reveals the inextricable link between the role of the commander and the effective implementation of the international humanitarian law (IHL). Understanding this linkage is vital to ensuring that commanders and other military leaders fulfil their obligation to prepare subordinates to navigate the chaos of mortal combat within the legal and by implication moral framework that IHL provides. Few commanders would question the proposition that responsible commanders prepare their military units to effectively perform their combat missions. However, operational effectiveness is only one aspect of developing a "responsible" command. Because this term is grounded in the expectation of IHL compliance, a truly responsible command exists only when the unit is prepared to execute its operational mission in a manner that fully complies with IHL obligations. This broader conception of a disciplined and effective military unit reflects the true nature of the concept of responsible command, as only military units built on this conception of discipline advance the complementary objectives of military effectiveness and humanitarian respect. Accordingly, the requirement that lawful combatants operate under responsible command is an admonition to all military leaders that truly effective military units are those capable of executing their missions with maximum operational effect within the framework of humanitarian constraint that defines the limits of justifiable violence during armed conflict.

Keywords: responsible command, compliance with IHL, combatant, human dignity, armed forces, accountability, military discipline.

About the author

Geoffrey S. Corn
Presidential Research Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Geoffrey Corn is Presidential Research Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law and previously served in the US Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Prior to joining the faculty at South Texas, Professor Corn served in a variety of military assignments, including as the Army’s senior law of war adviser, supervisory defence counsel for the Western United States, Chief of International Law for US Army Europe, and as a tactical intelligence officer in Panama.